The Meaning of Grey in Horror


A collage of screenshots from horror movies that heavily use black and white, including including Pi, Vampyr, Eraserhead, Nosferatu, Psycho, Wandavision, A Field in England, The Lighthouse

The first thing I noticed was how grey her skin was. Grey like the membrane that forms on raw meat. Initially, I thought she was covered in a thin layer of grime but after she emerged from the water, naked, hair dripping, I realized I was completely wrong. To call her pale would be inaccurate. Her skin had a fungal tinge, offset by the perfectly neutral expression on her face. Her eyes, grey also, were still as a lake, her nose round and inoffensive. I asked if she was ill and she smiled at me. She spoke in a voice that rustled like long-dead leaves. In truth, I didn’t hear the answer. I was distracted by her coiling black tongue, long like that of a lizard, flicking out as she spoke to graze against her pointed white teeth.

Hello and welcome to this installation of our meaning of color in horror series. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been working our way through all the different colors in the rainbow (and some beyond) to analyze what exactly they symbolize in the world of horror. If you want to see a summary of all the colors we’ve covered (and the few we haven’t yet), check out the original article, “The Meaning of Color in Horror.” 

Anyway, this particular article will focus not only on the use of grey in horror, but on the way horror movies combine black and white to convey meaning. Full disclosure: J.P. Ruz already wrote a fantastic article about the use of black-and-white filmmaking techniques in horror that we published a few months ago. However, this series would be incomplete if I didn’t touch upon the use of grey, and with that comes the use of black and white extremes. When possible, I’ve avoided re-treading covered ground. 

For this article, I’ll be looking at a mix of black-and-white movies including Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Vampyr, Pi, Eraserhead, Psycho, and The Lighthouse. I’ll also analyze the single black-and-white episode from The Haunting of Bly Manor, A Clockwork Orange, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space,” William Hope Hodgeson’sA Voice in the Night,” Stephen King’s “Gray Matter” and the work of manga artist Junji Ito. Yeah, we’re going very broad here. After all, everything from black to grey to white is a pretty wide spectrum.

Atmospheric Horror: The Emotions of Black and White 

Once upon a time, all movies had to be in black and white due to practical and budgetary constraints. However, even today, when filmmakers can shoot their stories in any color imaginable, some still choose to use a monochromatic palette. Older movies that had no other choice, such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Vampyr, capitalize on the potential of black and white filmmaking to develop a spooky atmosphere. The dark shadows hide lurking evils that we can barely make out. As Ruz puts it, “The B&W elevates the film’s splotchy, worn-out look by accentuating silent jump scares, visual cues that something isn’t right in this chiaroscuro countryside nightmare.”

Black and white filmmaking also enables filmmakers to show the extremes of emotion: blinding whites and unfathomable blacks. Films like Pi, Eraserhead, and Psycho use stark white sets and pitch-black shadows to develop tension. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are films that are in black and white, but tone down the saturation. These tend to be more greyscale than black and white, such as The Lighthouse or Episode 8, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” from The Haunting of Bly Manor. By toning down the use of light and shadow, these greyscale stories strip the visuals down to their bare bones, letting mood and character psyche steer the storytelling.

In researching this article, I came across a Reddit thread complaining about the use of “grey” in horror. And, at the risk of sounding too much like a bad Buzzfeed listicle, I am actually going to quote from it. User Bingo_Banzai said, “I understand a lot of horror movies use gray color palettes with high contrast in order to create a sense of dread and hopelessness, but to me it always makes the movie look visually bland. Some movies like the Babadook use it well but stuff like the Conjuring, Emelie, etc. makes my eyes heavy.” 

Specifically, I want to talk about the idea of “heavy eyes” because I absolutely relate to that. I’m not sure what the exact scientific reasons are for this, but I find black and white movies more daunting than color movies. Maybe it’s just that I have no culture (as suggested by a commenter in a Quora thread). Maybe it’s because I’m accustomed to color. In “Understanding Comics,” comic artist Scott McCloud suggests that, “we live in a world of colors, not just black and white. Color will always seem more “real” at first glance.”

Although McCloud was talking about comics, the unreality of black and white definitely contributes to that “heavy eye” effect in movies. There is something very sleepy about black and white movies. When you watch them, it is almost as though you’re being lulled. Your eyes feel heavy. In horror movies, in particular, the effect is that of being lured in

In “Why Do We Still Love Black and White Photography?”, photographer Rex Jones suggests that black and white photography is particularly effective because it causes viewers to draw a more emotional connection with the photo subject by narrowing down our focus. “An image presented in full color tells a very complete story, whereas an image that is stripped of color leaves a completely different set of ways that we can interpret what we see,” Jones explains, “Photography is one of those realms where very strong connections can be made, and the purposeful use of black and white images can facilitate such connections.” According to McCloud, colors “objectify their subjects. We become more aware of the physical form of the objects.” In this description, a face in black and white becomes eyes, ears, and a nose in color. 

In a way, black-and-white cinema is the exact opposite of everything we’ve been discussing about color in horror so far. Where filmmakers use blues and greens and pinks to influence your emotions as you watch a movie, black-and-white storytelling takes a step back, eliminating all color so that your emotions won’t be influenced by anything other than character and setting. It is stripped back, enabling you to establish a more immediate connection to the people and places onscreen. In horror, this connection is then used to make you uncomfortable, of course. Emotional proximity to the subjects merely means that their suffering becomes yours.

The manga art of Junji Ito is a masterclass in evoking strong emotions while limited to black, white, and any greys in between. Of course, like in film, this is part artistic choice, part practical limitation. Color printing is expensive. However, Ito’s work does not look like color art reduced to grayscale. It is deliberate and effective, replacing color with texture, shape, and framing. It uses the extremes of black and white to evoke emotional extremes. 

Quick heads up to those of you with trypophobia for the next part of the article: holes incoming.

A good example of how effective black and white can be in Ito’s work is if you compare the same “holey” figure in black and white versus in color. It’s the same man: face pockmarked with deep holes, eyes dropping out of their sockets. The color version is from the cover of Shiver, a collection of Ito stories. The black-and-white version is a screencap from the story itself: “Shivers.” One of Ito’s greatest strengths as a horror artist (in my opinion) is his ability to use textures to evoke sensations. In the full-color version, the color competes with the textures, reducing their impact. In the black-and-white, there is nothing else to look at: the stygian depths have a kind of roundness that seems like it will never end. I almost feel like touching my own face to make sure it isn’t also riddled with holes. Overall, I think the black-and-white version packs a far stronger emotional punch. 

A screenshot of a full-color illustration of a man with holes in his face and an eyeball falling out of his socket

Black and White Morality: What Lurks in the Shadows

“I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”

Coco Chanel

Black and white is an effective way of representing moral and ethical extremes. The phrase ‘black-and-white-thinking’ refers to thinking of things as either positive or negative, good or evil. Combining both extremes in a single character or setting can lead users to feel uneasy. Coco Chanel calls black and white perfect harmony, but how can two things that both “have it all” be harmonious when sharing a stage? Isn’t this town too big for the both of them?

In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his Droogs wear stark white clothes with black boots, hats, and makeup. Their chaos is amoral, not evil but completely devoid of any sense of morality at all. The black and white, which should symbolize clear order, is associated with pure chaos, which leaves viewers ill at ease. Here, black and white represent discordance. 

Grey in Horror: Amorality and Desolation (and Also Mushrooms)

“But what peculiar madness could have made both boys jump into the well? Their deeds were so similar—and the fragments shewed that they had both suffered from the grey brittle death. Why was everything so grey and brittle?”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Color Out of Space”

There is something deadly about grey. In Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space,” grey is what happens when something is drained of color and, by extension, life. The blasted heath where the meteor landed is grey and dead. But the grey is not stagnant. It is a growing desolation. First, it is the blasted heath, then the surrounding plants, then nearby animals, then people. 

In “The Color Out of Space,” grey represents the other. Not the other as in an outsider, but the other as in everything contrary to our known experience. If being human is defined by color and emotion and knowledge and certainty, then the inverse is grey: colorless, detached from human emotion, unknowable. There’s a reason why we often conceptualize aliens as grey, at least in the horror sphere. It gives them an inhumanity. 

In “‘Growing Grey and Brittle’: The Horror of Abjection in H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space,’” Daniel Nyikos argues that the greying land forces us to confront the existence of otherness. “In Lovecraft,” he explains, “being exposed to the unspeakable truths of the universe, a universe in which the human construct is meaningless and worthless, produces a powerful effect of shock, horror, and alienation that is profoundly abject.” (Side bar: no matter where I turn in horror academia, I always seem to end up back at Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection). 

“Just as the material from space proves unidentifiable to science, the greyness that it infects matter with defeats signification. It is a neutral color-without-color, between white and black, defying definition. Its association with sickness, decay, and burning can be felt in the description of the heath as “blasted” in the story; while no literal blasting took place, its destructive effect mirrors that of a blast. Grey, as it has no place on the color wheel, could be said to be beyond the human understanding of hues—it, like the color out of space, transgresses and unbalances the conventional definition of color.”

Daniel Nyikos, “‘Growing Grey and Brittle’: The Horror of Abjection in H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’” 

In “The Voice in the Night,” instead of a meteor, we get an invasive grey mushroom that grows on wood, walls, and even human skin. With its associations to life absorbed, grey here (and in the Lovecraft) represents decay. But grey decay is different from the “yellow” decay that often features in horror. Yellow decay is natural where grey decay is touched by something out of the ordinary. It is a supernatural decay. It’s the decay of being touched by alien life

“Amid the grey desolation of the lichen, there is nothing but that loathsome greyness.”

William Hope Hodgeson, “The Voice in the Night”

As the midpoint between black and white, grey is the color of neutrality, blending extremes. But grey is not the pacifist neutrality of Switzerland in World War 2; it is the apathetic neutrality of a world where there aren’t clear distinctions between good and evil. The grey that spreads from the meteor has no moral deliberation, but it is utterly destructive. The fungus in “The Voice in the Night” is not evil; it is merely doing its natural imperative. 

Fungal horror (one of my favorite subgenres) is a very specific, very niche sub genre that heavily features the color grey. You could argue that it’s as simple as “well, yeah, mushrooms are often grey,” but usually it goes deeper than that. Thematically, there is a lot of overlap between the way the color gray and mushrooms are used to represent amoral desolation. The destructive gray fungus is uncaring, unstoppable, and cruel, straddling the border between life and death.

In Stephen King’s “Gray Matter,” a gelatinous grey substance turns alcoholic Richie into an inhuman, amoral creature. He becomes fungus-like, thriving in the dark, consuming anything dead no matter its state of rot. The grey represents a fear of infection often associated with fungal horror, the concept of some inhuman thing threading its way through our veins without our noticing. The descriptions of the greyness are not neutral; they are disgusting, visceral. The grey is a slime, a carnivorous jelly that smothers any remains of Richie’s humanity and threatens the sanctity of everyone else’s.

“‘Look,’ Richie says, and one hand creeps out from under the blanket. Only it ain’t a hand at all. Something grey, is all the kid could tell Henry. Didn’t look like a hand at all. Just a grey lump.”

Stephen King, “Gray Matter”

***

A black and white collage drawing that features buttons, a skull, a sunflower, tomatoes, a fig, a snake, and a bow

In a nutshell: In horror, black and white symbolizes lurking evil, tension, psychological storytelling, eerieness, amorality, moral and ethical extremes, and order and discordance. Meanwhile, grey symbolizes death, destruction, decay, amorality, the other, and neutrality.

Up Next: The Meaning of Black in Horror

Categories: SymbolismTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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